Student Tries to Capture the Power of Sewage

Sikandar, 15, presents his findings to officials at the Seneca wastewater treatment plant.
Sikandar, 15, presents his findings to officials at the Seneca wastewater treatment plant. "We're very impressed," a senior plant operator said. (By Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)
By Lori Aratani
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 28, 2007

It started with the mud.

Icky, sludgy, smelly mud from the depths of the Potomac. At age 13, Sikandar Porter-Gill became fascinated with alternative fuel sources and wanted to see whether he could harness the bacteria in mud from the river to generate power.

His "mud battery" was a success. Now, two years later, Sikandar has moved on to bigger things: experimenting with ways to turn sewage into power. Yes, that's right, sewage.

Yesterday, Sikandar, 15, presented the findings of two years of experimentation to officials with the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission's Seneca wastewater treatment plant in Germantown -- people who are always looking for ways to do smarter things with sewage.

Dressed in dark slacks, a blue shirt and blue-checked tie, Sikandar nervously fired up his PowerPoint presentation.

"My experiment is called 'Improvement of a Single-Chamber Microbial Fuel Cell Utilizing a Novel Concept of a Hydrophobic Coating at the Cathode and the Incorporation of Graphite Granules at the Anode Electrode,' " he said earnestly.

Translation? Sikandar, a sophomore at Gaithersburg High School, has spent the past two years trying to develop a cheaper, more efficient microbial fuel cell. The cell is used by scientists to harness the chemical reaction that occurs when bacteria digest the organic matter in sewage. That process produces small electrical charges, which are captured for power.

"I wanted to find a cost-effective way to produce [microbial fuel cells] and then have them make more power," Sikandar said. The cells and sewage are a perfect combination, because they both are "harnessing a process that's already going on in nature."

As part of that effort, Sikandar, whose parents are molecular biologists, experimented with membranes and coatings that are built into the microbial fuel cell. He thinks his biggest breakthrough this time is using graphite granules, which act as the electrode in the single-chamber microbial fuel cell.

As a freshman, he had built a two-chamber microbial fuel cell but found that he could generate 19 percent more power from the single-chamber setup, despite using less sewage.

"He just keeps progressing," said his mother, Patricia Porter-Gill, who remembers donning rubber boots to dig mud out of the Potomac for the first experiment.

Officials with the sanitary commission were impressed.

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